Prey – First Impressions

At a mere 3 hours in, I feel like I’ve done nothing and yet something at the same time. Warning: Spoilers.

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This looks perfectly safe.

Prey (2017) came out of nowhere for me. I remember the “original” Prey from 2006 was a fairly forgettable game, but what Human Head were doing with Prey 2 looked somewhat novel and interesting. Bethesda took over the rights and gave the name to Arkane Studios, who promptly scrapped whatever Prey 2 was and decided to make System Shock in a different setting. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

I knew pretty much nothing about Prey going into the game, and I only purchased it because… well, I needed something to play. I’m running it on my gaming laptop – 6700HQ, GTX 1070, 16GB RAM, on an SSD.

What is it?

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It’s a beautiful day. It’s an illusion.

Prey is an RPG/FPS hybrid that pretty much reminds me of System Shock in a way that Bioshock never quite managed. You play as Morgan Yu, assigned to a futuristic space station called Talos I, a bastion of high science and technology. Talos I features a load of scientific breakthroughs, one of which being ‘neuromods’ which imprint instant knowledge provided you’re willing to stab yourself in the eye. In a somewhat predicatable twist, an alien collective called the Typhon breaks containment and starts wrecking the place… and it’s up to you to stop them.

There’s a bit more to it than that, and the opening sequence is basically a big “Gotcha!” moment, with a few fairly well done plot reveals along the way.

In terms of gameplay, Prey has fairly typical FPS controls, but with an inventory and skill system that is probably the closest to System Shock 2 that I’ve seen in a very long time. You will go around collecting various firearms, tools, abilities, and assorted junk to recycle into raw materials to fabricate more useful stuff. The game is somewhat open ended too – while you have a ‘primary’ objective, there are lots of optional objectives to follow, along with plenty of secrets and multiple pathways to boot. You’ll hack turrents and terminals, break into safes, repair all manner of broken shit, upgrade weapons, upgrade your suit, and a lot of other System Shock-y stuff. Even the interface at times reminds me a little bit of System Shock 2 – the inventory system in particular.

Movement is quite slow and methodical, and there’s a rudimentary stealth system. And you’ll need it – Prey’s enemies aren’t particularly numerous but they are pretty tough, even on easier difficulty levels, and rushing into confrontations with the Typhon unprepared will either result in death, the liberal use of medkits, or eating every stray apple and bag of chips in sight.

What’s good so far?

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Hey there, little guy!

Prey really does remind me a lot of System Shock 2… and that’s not always a good thing, to be honest. It feels like a very refined System Shock 2, but sometimes it sits a little too close to it. Hell, the first weapon you get is a wrench, and there are liberal references to Looking Glass studios throughout the entire game.

Firstly, the art direction is fairly nice. Instead of going for a full future stainless steel or white plastic effect, Prey has an art deco vibe, sometimes bordering on 1950s “future” tech at times. Things seem almost clunky, and sort of… I don’t know, maybe a tiny bit steampunk too? It’s sort of like if the space race just kept going and that era never really went out of fashion… and that’s sort of part of the lore for the game too. It’s just an unusual sort of art design that I actually think works fairly well.

I like the upgrades and character progression, and how the skills become useful during play. While the game initially appears to shower you with neuromods, they quickly become more expensive to unlock, and you’ll be channeled down particular pathways before long. Most objectives have multiple ways to approach them – whether that’s by hacking instead of finding a keycard, or by taking a different path to the objective, or things like that. Basically it has the same sort of exploration system that System Shock 2 had, including the hub-like environments, reading emails and listening to voice logs for information, and considering carefully how best to tackle a situation.

Combat is… well, it’s sort of a mixed bag, in my opinion. Again, to compare with SS2 – confrontations are typically one on one, and usually dangerous. This is a game where discretion being the better part of valour holds true at times. The most common enemy are Mimics, which look like headcrabs made out of tar, and they hide amongst common debris and prop items, emerging to attack when you get too close. The more dangerous are the humanoid Phantoms, which can wipe out a lot of your health if you’re not careful. I found combat a tad too unforgiving at times – which some people will like, but this definitely isn’t an action FPS game.

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Is this a lab, or a postmodern office space?

Your first projectile weapon shoots white goop that hardens on contact – freezing enemies in place but otherwise leaving them unharmed. From there you start to acquire other weapons, and ammo can sometimes be in somewhat limited supply (at least until you can fabricate more). Enemies are bullet sponges to a degree (and it gets worse as the game goes on), but again some people will like that kind of gameplay. It leans more towards survival-horror than action RPG, and even if you try to go for a character build that emphasises combat, you’ll still have to be careful with engagements.

The storyline is fairly engaging and entertaining. I haven’t gotten too far with it but I’m not overly bored or disconnected from the experience. I don’t believe that it’s quite as engaging as System Shock 2, but it’s by no means bad. There’s quite a lot of gameplay here provided you don’t just try to rush through the campaign.

What’s bad so far?

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Thanks, but you look awful in yours.

In terms of the engine, while performance is excellent, I noticed a lot of issues with texture streaming. Sometimes textures looked like absolute arse until I got right up close to them. There are occasional low resolution textures too – one that comes to mind is a periodic table which is essential to solving a puzzle; a set piece like that should have a nice, sharp texture, not one that borders on legibility. Animations at times look a bit janky, particularly with humans. The lighting and shadows also seems a little off at times – and this is on the highest settings. I remember one instance where I crawled into a vent only to have a sting sound effect play… while an indistinct blob sort of crossed my field of vision, presumably a shadow that doesn’t render very well.

Back on the combat, as I said sometimes it seems too unforgiving, and often a combat-focused character just seems underpowered. The AI at times will intelligently run away and hide if it feels like it’s losing, but when it decides to stand and fight you can be in for a bit of a rough time. While the Mimics on their own pose little real threat, Phantoms and the more challenging enemies can sometimes prove problematic. Maybe it’s a case of ‘git good’ but at times it seems like even minor mistakes are punished significantly, and weapons don’t always do a great deal of damage. I don’t know, I’m not asking to be a super soldier or anything, but sometimes the weapons seem anaemic. And the glue gun thing feels absolutely useless, save for the fact that I can use it to negate enviromental hazards or build a set of stairs to get to new areas. As a combat weapon, it’s almost useless.

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Some of the environments and art direction are stunning.

Apart from that, I don’t really have many complaints. The UI is a bit of a pain in the arse, as it is with most console UIs, but the PC one has a special hell for only half implementing a mouse UI. While it mostly works, there are still some times when pushing a key on the keyboard is the best method of getting the UI to do what you want. It also has that annoying “crosshair down low” bullshit that Halo popularised. It just makes my aiming feel weird, and I really don’t know why the hell developers do it.

Impressions so far? Good!

I don’t want to really write much of a review just right now – I’m not entirely convinced that I can give it a fair score only after 3 and a bit hours. On many games today, within the first 3 hours you already know where the ride is going and whether it’s worth it. Right now I’m slightly unconvinced. In general I like the game, it seems good, but there’s just something ever so slightly off that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps with extra gameplay time I’ll puzzle it out. But for now? It seems pretty positive.

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